Archive for the ‘2009 Reviews’ Category

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Drawing for the Future and Putting Pizzazz in GM Cars

April 12, 2015
Ed Welburn - GM Global Design VP

Ed Welburn – GM’s Artist in Chief

By Roger Witherspoon

Ed Welburn was as cool as ever.

A soft-spoken man with a quiet air, he moved through the centerpiece GM exhibit at the New York International Auto Show, barely glancing at the two showcase Cadillacs under wraps, which would be unveiled at a press preview in another hour. He would pause every now and then, look at the lighting, the angle of the cars and comment quietly to one of the many GM employees bustling around the exhibition hall.

Sometimes, Welburn would suggest a slight adjustment in the scene, the type of subtle shift one might expect from a trained artist. Other times, he’d drop a word of encouragement or appreciation to anxious staff. He walked alone, observant and confident, without the trailing entourage that usually accompanies top-level auto industry executives—particularly one who is playing such a key role in the resurrection of General Motors.

2015 Chevy Malibu

Family Friendly Chevy Malibu

These have been trying times for GM, which last year had to recall nearly 27 million domestic cars and trucks and another 3 million overseas because of a host of dangerous engineering defects. This is an important show for GM, which is showcasing some 80 cars and trucks in an effort to overcome the seemingly unending flow of bad news with a cavalcade of eye-catching, flashy vehicles capable of luring motorists and their checkbooks into showrooms. On the main floor of the Auto Show, which closes Sunday at the cavernous Jacob Javits Center, are world debuts of the Cadillac CT6, the Chevrolet Malibu, the urban-oriented Chevy Spark, and the heavy duty GMC Terrain. Then there are minor amendments to some of GM’s signature sports cars, notably the Camaro and Corvette, which are sleeker and faster than ever.

City-oriented Chevy Spark

City-oriented Chevy Spark

It’s also been a trying few years for Welburn, a trained sculptor, GM’s vice president of global design, and one of the highest ranking blacks in the auto industry.  Welburn, whose father owned an auto repair shop in Berwyn, Pa., literally grew up with the car industry and was mesmerized by the sweeping designs of the big-finned vehicles that hogged the roads in the ‘50s.

“Those cars took their design cues from the aircraft of that era,” he said, “which represented the top technology of the time.  We still take design cues from aircraft.”

The current edition of Cadillac CT6, for example, with its svelte shape and small, sharp angles, is reminiscent of the silhouette of the nation’s stealth fighters. So are the lines on the current generation of Camaro, which is on schedule to deliver its 500,000th model this month.

These mobile artworks are the products of Welburn’s design teams who collaborate via floor-to-ceiling virtual meeting rooms. His job has been to keep them stimulated and churning out new and bold ideas during a period of financial collapse and bankruptcy, followed by massive recalls due to safety issues. The difficulty is keeping the creative juices flowing with a disparate group of temperamental artists after the public acceptance of their art pieces have been compromised by the poor work of others.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Welburn with a sigh, walking slowly past the newest edition of the Malibu. “The key was to stay focused.

Staying Focused

Staying Focused

“When we went into bankruptcy there were people saying the company was doomed and all was lost.  I called the team together and said stay focused. This will pass. We will get through this and when we do, people will go to showrooms and ask what kind of car have you designed?

“And when they come, we have to be ready. We have to have the designs they want. And my teams focused on that.”

It wasn’t easy for Welburn to “stay focused” during the bankruptcy. He had taken a lot of pride in personally redesigning the Saturn line, from the extremely competitive SUV down to the Saturn Sky, a Barbie-doll of a roadster that was incredibly fine to look at but was short on interior technology. How well the line would have moved will never be known – GM killed the Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer lines as part of its restructuring.

Welburn Cruises in his '69 Camaro

Welburn Cruises in his ’69 Camaro

Without a pause, Welburn poured energy into fine tuning GM’s complete line, with emphasis on two of his personal favorites, the Camaro and Corvette. Welburn still drives a vintage Camaro.

Over the last two years, problems that surfaced with GM engineering – particularly the cover-up of faulty ignition switches – could have sent GM sales into a tailspin.  But the designs kept the cars afloat.

As the ignition crisis and the recalls accelerated, Welburn had another virtual group conference. “We had the same talk,” he said. “I told them to just stay focused on what we do best, and make sure we aren’t contributing to the difficulties the engineers have.

“We had to make our designs attractive to the public, and something the engineers could readily relate to because they, too, would be getting past these troubles.”

The designs kept coming and so did GM’s customers.

“GM took a marginal hit on sales in the short term,” said Jeremy Acevedo, analyst with Edmunds.com, the car shopping website. “But by and large GM weathered that blow really, really well. The truth is that they were unaffected in the long term. GM does a lot of things right, which is why they are the best-selling auto maker in the nation.

2015 Chevy Corvette Z06

2015 Chevy Corvette Z06

“Even amid all their recall woes they still sold 2.94 million units in 2014. That’s up from 2.79 million in 2013. Their design is the critical part of selling cars. Then there is performance and reliability.  Their design could have been compromised by faulty engineering. But when you have a manufacturer firing on all cylinders, as they are now, that is when they do shine.”

The importance of design in the reception of a car can’t be overstated.

“When you think about it,” said David Smedley, associate professor of art and coordinator of Howard University’s sculpture program, “the car is the largest form of sculpture that most Americans own. We don’t buy cars exclusively for their utilitarian value either: our self-esteem and identity is invested in them.”

And cars, if they are to sell and attract hundreds of thousands of buyers, have to be more than just well-engineered. They are conceived as aesthetic aids to the home, Smedley explained, with the engineering coming second to make the product work.

“In the process of designing cars, they are actually clay first,” Smedley said.  “They make a full-sized version in clay before they finalize any design. There is nothing like the physical form in front of you, and being in the same space as the vehicle, to get the feel of what these cars are going to be like. It is an emotional attachment, and it therefore makes sense for GM and the other car companies to recruit from fine arts, especially the sculpture programs.”

Welburn and his teams don’t just sit down and draw a car; they also have to predict the future. Automobiles begin as concepts, evolving into a drawing and then a full size clay model. But the process begins one year, and comes out two to four years later – when tastes, politics, fashion, and the nation’s economy may have changed radically. By the time an eye-catching design moves from the drawing board to the showroom, it may be outdated.

But right now, GM’s designs seem to be catching on.

 2015 Camaro with 525 Horsepower

2015 Camaro with 525 Horsepower

“The Corvette operates in an interesting landscape all its own,” said Acevedo, the analyst. “It is the American answer to the foreign sports cars, at half the price. And it has a loyal following.”

“The Camaro is another story. It has had competition from the Ford Mustang and the other Pony Cars, and it perennially slugs it out with the Mustang. In 2014 Camaro came out on top, selling 86,297 while Mustang sold 79, 675. The Dodge Challenger was behind with 51,611. But this year is going in the opposite direction. In the first quarter there were 29,695 Mustangs sold while Camaro sold 17, 320.  And that’s a design issue.”

The Mustang, in keeping with its 50 year anniversary, came out with a new, powerful, popular edition.  Camaro, on the other hand, is in the fifth year of this edition and despite the various minor changes, is looking dated by comparison.

2015 Ford Mustang - Running on 400 Horses

2015 Ford Mustang – Running on 400 Horses

But the 2016 Camaro, to be introduced next month, has been completely redesigned and the market will determine if Welburn and his crew have been using their crayons effectively. Currently, their plant is closed for retooling, Acevedo said, which limits sales until the new edition begins rolling off the factory floor.

Design has also helped GM’s truck division, which has a 35.7% share of the nation’s market – just 1% less than industry-leading Ford. The Ford F-150 is actually the world’s best-selling vehicle.

Ford F-150 - Still #1

Ford F-150 – Still #1

“But it’s the GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado that are doing very well against the F-150 and are keeping GM  near the top of the truck market,” said Acevedo. “Chevy in particular has taken a bite out of Ford’s market share. With trucks, buyers look first for utility, but after that, it’s the styling that counts. And the Silverado and Sierra have developed a very loyal base of buyers.”

2015 GMC Sierra HD All Terrain

2015 GMC Sierra – Still Trying

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09′ Toyota Venza

October 7, 2009

Convenience by Design

In a Car for all Seasons

By Roger Witherspoon

Benjamin Jimenez had a blank slate, a one-of-a-kind chassis, and a mission to make the first Toyota designed and built in the U.S. uniquely appealing to American motorists. And if you are curious as to how a thoughtful designer can pack a lot into a $35,000 family sedan, you might try a tour in the Toyota Venza.

Jimenez operates out of Toyota’s design studios in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about a half hour’s drive from the offices of America’s troubled Big Three auto makers. He was handed a newly designed chassis intended to provide the frame for a new “Crossover SUV” in which a third was borrowed from the best selling Camry sedan, a third from the Highlander SUV, and a third created to fit the other two pieces together.

As a “crossover” SUV, the Venza is supposed to provide the maneuverability and handing of a fully loaded Camry sedan, combined with the height and cargo space of an SUV. In that regard, it is along the lines of the Lexus RX series, but for $10,000 less. For looks, Toyota asked Ian Cartabiano and his associates in their Newport Beach studio to draw something that looked at home in the California sun.

So Ian thinned the grill and stretched it above the air intake and across a sloping front to merge with the high density headlights. The effect is a permanent California smile. Beginning with the smiley face, the Venza is a sleek crossover which looks a bit smaller than the Infiniti 35 or Lexus RX – though it isn’t – and more like a large, round sedan. From the side, the Venza has a shape familiar to most crossovers – with the Ford Edge the notable exception – but the roof slopes down towards the back to make the car look smaller and sleeker than it actually is.

Under the hood is a 268-horsepower V-6 engine, which is more than enough for ordinary driving, though the Venza will not take off and run ahead of the pack the way the Nissan FX-35 will. Still, the Venza’s engine is strong enough to tow 3,700 pounds, which is sufficient to cover the average snowbird’s wardrobe for the winter season. While the Venza doesn’t get the best mileage – the EPA estimates it drinks 18 MPG in the city and 25 MPG on the highway – at least it drinks regular unleaded gasoline instead of the higher priced sauce.

But what makes the Venza stand out is the attention to detail paid to the area where motorists spend most of their time – inside the car. It is here that Jimenez earned his keep, for you never feel as if you are going low-rent with the Venza, even if you take the stripped down model in which the seats are cloth and not heated, there is no navigation system, and the trim is plastic simulating wood rather than a real dead tree. It is a thoughtfully designed car, which always makes one feel that he or she is getting more than they paid for.

“With this interior,” said Jimenez, “we were trying to create the perfect space, the ideal vehicle for today’s customers. We weren’t limited by the standard rules that this is a sedan or SUV.”

The center console, for example, is in two sections and has a slot on the passenger’s side which is large enough for the average library book. There is the standard, deep bin under the sliding arm rest, and then a second deep bin under the cup holders, which have a soft blue light that comes on when the headlights are turned on. Inside this second bin is a 12-volt power outlet and an MP3 and iPod connection. There is another iPod connection in the glove compartment. If you plug a power cord into the outlet, you do not have to keep the bin open. There is a hidden chute which opens from a slot on the dash, which is designed to hold iPods or cell phones.

“Everybody working on the car had a cell phone or iPod and we had to find a place to put them,” said Jimenez. “The engineering team did a job so that slot holds virtually any cell phone and neatly stores the cords.”

The idea for two storage bins in the console, he explained, came from observing how drivers and passengers interacted with the vehicle. “I asked myself what does my wife bring with her?” he explained. “And I tried to create spaces for those things – a small handbag, for example, which is why the console has two bins. We have a slot on the side of the console because she usually has a book with her, and needed some place to store it besides putting it on the floor.”

The entry version of the Venza has no navigation system, but there is a backup camera connected to a small information screen in the center of the dash near the front windshield – which also tells the time, temperature, and distance to empty. The three-inch screen was recessed into the dash, he said because it was within the line of sight of the driver focusing on the road ahead.

For another $2,500, however, Toyota offers an expanded center console with a navigation system, DVD player and touch-screen.

The test car had a two-tone interior, broken by simulated wood, comprised of a soft, padded, faux-leather with a cloth roof, giving the interior a look that is more expensive than it really is. For $1,600, however, Toyota offers real leather seats, which can be heated, and real wood trim. An additional $1,000 provides sunroofs over the front and rear sections of the car.

In terms of room, the rear seats both recline far enough to let the passengers take naps, or fold flat to enlarge the cargo area. There is AM/FM and XM satellite radio with a JBL sound system featuring 13 speakers, and an easy-to-use Bluetooth cell phone connection. Both the entertainment and cell phone systems are accessible from fingertip controls on the tilting and telescoping steering wheel.

Toyota’s decision to have American designers develop a car for this family market was an astute one. If they continue turning out innovative cars like the Venza, the road ahead for the three American firms down the road will be increasingly bumpy.

2009 Toyota Venza 4WD

MSRP: $33,623

EPA Mileage: 18 MPG City 25 MPG Highway

Towing Weight: 3,500 pounds

Performance / Safety:

3.5-Liter aluminum alloy, DOHC V-6 engine producing 268 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque; electronic all wheel drive; MacPherson Strut front & rear suspension; stability and traction controls; electronic rack and pinion steering; 4-wheel disc brakes; 20-inch, 5-spoke, aluminum alloy wheels; backup camera; high density lamps with automatic high beam dimmer; fog lamps; driver and front passenger front, knee, and seat-mounted side airbags; side curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; JBL Synthesis Surround Sound with 13 speakers; 6-disc, in-dash CD player; MP3 and iPod connection; Bluetooth cell phone connection; tilt & telescope steering wheel with fingertip audio, cell phone and cruise controls; power rear door; 3.5-inch display screen; illuminated cup holders; 60/40, fold flat rear seats.

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09′ Cadillac Escalade Hybrid

October 7, 2009

 

09 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid

Cadillac Escalade Hybrid:

The Low Gas Video Game on Wheels

By Roger Witherspoon

I stared at the little white box in the middle of the dashboard in utter disbelief.

Ninety-nine miles per gallon.

It was only there for a few seconds, and then dropped quickly to 75, then 60. It would have kept falling, but I wouldn’t let it. I wanted the big number back. I eased into the right lane, letting the youngsters in the sports cars race by. I kept the big SUV at a steady pace, instead of zooming forward and hitting the brakes whenever I came close to another car. I coasted on the slightest downward incline – doing everything possible to reduce my gasoline consumption and let the little white gauge flash the magical number 99.

The overall gas mileage a vehicle gets is an average ranging from the voracious rate of gas consumption when you rapidly accelerate – as low as three MPG for full sized SUVs – up to the heady, 100 MPG rate you get when the car is basically coasting. The more time the car spends at the high end of the MPG scale, the better the overall rate and the more money the motorist saves. But there are limits as to what an individual car can do to save gas.

People who have spent time behind the wheel of small hybrids such as the sub-compact Toyota Prius, or the mid sized hybrids like the Chevrolet Malibu, are used to driving in such a way that they are frequently hitting the 99 mile per gallon figure. But those are light sedans and compact cars. Getting relatively high mileage in a truck is another matter. On this occasion, however, I was behind the wheel of a Cadillac Escalade – the huge, heavy, boxy, eight-seater, luxury truck from General Motors – and it had not occurred to me that I might hit MPG numbers high enough to pull the Escalade’s overall average mileage rate up from the single digit motoring basement.

Yet, when it came time to refill the tank with regular unleaded gasoline, the Escalade Hybrid was hitting 20 MPG in mixed motoring, a far cry from the nine miles per gallon I averaged the last time I drove the big machine. While 20 MPG is not high enough to hurt ExxonMobil’s stock or lure people away from more efficient sedans, it does make the truck-based SUV a more realistic option for those in the market for a full sized set of luxury wheels.

This Escalade has a dual mode power system which allows it to run solely on the six-liter, 332-horsepower V-8 gasoline engine, the 300-volt, battery powered electric motor, or both. In addition, the V-8 has GM’s “Active Management System” which shuts down four of the cylinders when the car is cruising at a steady speed or going downhill. The combination of these systems is a major improvement over the non-hybrid model, which uses a slightly larger, 6.2-liter, 403 horsepower V-8 engine burning fuel at a rate of 9 miles per gallon in mixed city and highway driving. The difference in power systems between the standard and the more fuel efficient hybrid comes at a premium of $3,500.

In practice, when you first start the 09 Escalade Hybrid, you hear and feel nothing, though you see the instrument panel and nine-inch LCD navigation and information screen light up, and the Bluetooth automatically connects to your cell phone. But electric motors sit silently, waiting until you hit the accelerator. There is no gas wasted idling the car.

The electric motor can power the Escalade up to about 30 miles per hour, which means that when you first take off, and in stop and go traffic there is no need to burn gasoline at all. The gas engine takes over at higher speeds, or if there is a hard acceleration, when both power systems are used. Since the electric motor applies its force directly to the axels, the combination of the two power systems greatly increases the responsiveness of the 7,500-pound vehicle. It is still a truck, but even at high speeds, the Escalade never feels like a runaway freight train.

The electric motor also converts the heat from brakes directly into electricity, which is stored in the battery pack under the second row of seats. As a result, there is no need to shell out several hundred dollars to replace the brake pads and rotors five or six years down the road.

In terms of luxury, the guy in the Escalade Hybrid commercials who smugly says “If it had a bathroom I’d live in it,” is exaggerating more than a little bit. But there are reasons why the Escalade, with a $75,000 price tag, leads the full sized luxury pack.

Comfort Zone

 

On the outside, it is still a big, hulking mass, though the 2009 edition has far more character than the original black box. Ed Welburn, GM’s vice president for design and a Howard University-trained sculptor, has given the Escalade an aggressive face and broken the enormous sides with chrome air vents not unlike those spotted on large Land Rovers. The sheer mass on the car’s sides has been broken with slight, shape-shifting lines borrowed from those on stealth fighters, which gives even a parked Escalade the feeling of power in motion.

Buyers of the Escalade have traditionally been overwhelmingly male – a pattern common to the largest SUV class. But while the styling is still one of male oriented aggression, GM is hoping that the introduction of the hybrid will expand the SUV’s appeal to more women and those seeking the latest in automotive technology and fuel efficiency. And for those worried about the longevity of the battery pack, it comes with an eight year, 100,000-mile warranty.

On the highway, the hybrid is a highly mobile, responsive truck capable of cruising in triple digits without feeling like a runaway train that is about to skip the rails and roll over. It is surprisingly versatile away from civilization as well. The Escalade has enough ground clearance to go on moderate off-road excursions, but the front seat is not inaccessible. When you open the door, a step slides out so one can maintain a sense of decorum – and women need not hike up their skirts – while easily climbing inside. Yet it is comfortable and cushioned enough to watch a movie without interruption on the pull down DVD screen while driving over a gravel country road.

Inside, the Escalade Hybrid provides the touches you would expect in a car in this price range. Seats are wide, leather, and heated in the front and back. Both the second and third row of seats can fold flat, turning the SUV into a cargo van. The third row is difficult to get into, however, since you have to climb over the folded second row to get there. So while one of the prominent Escalade commercials has a pair of long-legged, skimpily-clad women sitting back there, in reality they would stop at the second row and, perhaps, toss their Prada bags into the back seats. While the second row has enough leg room for Shaquille O’Neal, the third row is really for kids in children’s’ seats. The long-legged ladies, if they sat there, would have their knees somewhere around their ears.

The leather steering wheel tilts but does not telescope, which is a minor surprise. The navigation system is easy to use and intuitive, with a touch screen for those who are not comfortable with joy sticks. When the Bluetooth system is activated the nine-inch LCD screen, which is adjustable for easier viewing, shows a keypad for touch-dialing numbers.

For low speed safety, there is a backup camera displaying the rear scene on the LCD screen, an essential item when backing up in areas with freely roaming children, or backing into tight parking spaces. On the highway, the Escalade also has a side radar which sounds a warning bell if you begin to move into another lane of traffic and overlooked a vehicle in the SUV’s blind spot.

The Escalade also has OnStar, GM’s satellite-based communications system which can frequently work in areas that cell phones cannot. The latest incarnation of OnStar can also host your cell phone, as well as provide turn-by-turn directions. And for fun, there is AM/FM and XM satellite radio, as well as a six-disc, in-dash CD player – though they neglected to add an iPod connection. For those who want to watch movies, the DVD player has wireless headsets so the rear passengers can view the overhead screen while the front passengers continue listening to the radio or CD player. When the car is stopped, however, the DVD will play through both the overhead screen and the front LCD screen, with the sound provided by the 10-speaker Bose system.

Most of the drive-in movie theaters of my youth have long gone. But parking the Escalade on a scenic overlook above the wide Hudson River Valley on a warm, moonlit night, reclining the back seats and watching a movie feels just as fine.

2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid

4 Wheel Drive

MSRP: $75,330

EPA Mileage: 20 MPG City 21 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage: 20 MPG Combined

Towing Capacity: 5,600 Pounds

Performance / Safety:

6.0-Liter Vortec V-8 cast aluminum engine producing 332 horsepower and 367 pound/feet of torque; 300-volt hybrid electric motor; active fuel management; two mode continuous electric hybrid transmission; road sensing suspension; four wheel drive; rear locking differential; automatic rear leveling; antilock brakes; 4-wheel power assisted disc brakes with regenerative braking control; stability and traction controls; 22-inch chrome aluminum wheels; backup camera and side warning radar; dual frontal air bags; head curtain and side air bags for all rows.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; 10-speaker Bose 5.1 surround sound system; 6-disc, in-dash CD and MP3 player; DVD player with pull-down screen; navigation system with touch screen or voice activated controls; 115-volt power outlet; heated and cooled front seats and back rests; heated rear seats; leather seats; leather covered, tilt steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls; Bluetooth and OnStar connection; powered liftgate, pedals, and retractable access step; powered sunroof.

 

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09′ Acura TL

October 7, 2009

The TL: Luxury Aimed at Men

Driven by Women on the Move

By Roger Witherspoon

If you go by the ads, the Acura TL is a luxury car designed for the leisure tastes of upwardly mobile young men.

The images zipping across the television screen are fast moving, whether it’s the sleek silhouette of the car with its aggressive, sharply angled face racing through dark city streets and zooming around corners with just a hint of a drift; or the lovely, partly-clad, equally fast women angling to hang out with the driver. It is clearly pitched to the man who fancies himself a professional on the way up.

So I wondered how a woman would react to the newest, $40,000 boy toy.

To my wife’s eye, the angled front grill resembled a smile or playful smirk, rather than a male-oriented, aggressive grimace. She ran her hands over the soft leather chairs, nodding at the hand-made quality of the double stitching and the precision holes in the seat and back, a feature which lets the leather breathe and minimizes heat buildup in the summer. She slid easily into the wide front, noting there was plenty of room to swing her legs under the adjustable steering wheel without having to first hike up her skirt and then perform an un lady-like split in order to fit.

She rested her arms on the padded, leather arm rest on the console and on the doors and ran her fingers around the leather wrapped gear shift. To my eye, the large gear knob’s shape and X-stitching clearly emulated a baseball. But she noted the careful hand stitching and remarked that the soft lamb leather, of a type normally found in expensive lady’s gloves, was an improvement over the usual cold chrome standard in performance cars.

She held the steering wheel, which had the same lamb’s leather cover and X-stitch, looked slowly around the two tone interior, smiled and stated simply: “I could get used to this.”

Note to Acura: you should let women write the ad copy.

The TL is Acura’s venture into an exacting, performance luxury car market established by the Mercedes C and E-class, the Audi 4 and 6, the BMW 3 and 5-series, the Lexus ES, GS, and Is, and Infiniti’s road running G37 and M35. It is a crowded field, but a tough one demanding interior refinements, and high speed control. It is a class which expects competitors to zoom to high speeds – not get there eventually – and straighten out the crookedest roads. And in these categories, the new TL just may give some of the established brands a run for their premium sedan money.

The TL experience starts with the ride.

The mid morning sun was bouncing off the wide, dry, nearly empty highway slicing through marshland in the western Connecticut countryside and enveloping the TL in a metallic glow as it sat on the shoulder beside some tall, waving grass. Under the shimmering hood, a 3.7-liter V-6 engine purred softly in neutral, its 305 horses waiting for the signal to go.

I set the five-speed transmission in “sport” mode, tapped the silver paddle shift behind the steering wheel, and floored the accelerator. The sound of the dual exhausts changed from a purr to a rumble, and the TL shot forward, the pressure pushing me back into the leather seats. I tapped the paddle shifts up through fifth gear as the speedometer zipped towards its top speed of 130 miles per hour. Motor Trend magazine’s technicians clocked the TL’s takeoff from 0 to 60 miles per hour at just 6.5 seconds, and it hit the quarter mile in 14.8 seconds at just under 100 miles per hour. Not bad for a sport sedan.

The TL comes in two flavors: front wheel, and all wheel drive. The test car was the all inclusive model, and I tapped the gear shift down to fourth, entered a wide curve at 105, and rolled on 18-inch wheels steadily through the curve until I was again on a straightaway, could tap the gear shift up to fifth and again accelerate towards the TL’s top speed. Throughout the trip, the Acura’s computer systems shifted torque among front and rear axels, and left and right wheels to maximize control and level out the road. Coupled with its stability and traction controls, the all wheel drive TL never wavered, reacting as a luxury sports car should, providing the comfort and feel of a Cadillac CTS.

Inside, the folks with Acura’s crayons provided a number of refinements one would expect in a luxury sedan. The two-tone dash is shaped in a double curve, providing the illusion of private space for the driver and front passenger. The design motif for the main dials, including the tachometer and speedometer, resemble the circular racing dials and are angled for best viewing by the driver. From the side, though, they resemble sculptures in a wide, curved setting

The wide, leather arm rest over the front center console is U-shaped, and behind the center part is a recessed, pull-out drawer which can conveniently hold a cell phone or electronic toll pass. Underneath the arm rest is a bin which hosts the iPod, iPhone, USB port and MP3 connections. You can use the iPod’s playlist, or download up to 2,500 songs through the car’s in-dash CD player to an entertainment hard drive, and have a mobile play list. And if you’re tired of your own tunes, there is built-in satellite radio. The sound emanates through a 10-speaker Dolby audio system that can blast Usher or soothe with Coltrane.

Getting around, even in traffic or bad weather, is facilitated by a satellite driven navigation system – either voice activated or using a touch screen – with real-time weather and Doppler radar mapping.

The car’s Bluetooth cell phone communications systems is fast and easy to set up, and can instantly access your phone book and speed dial settings without you having to download them into the car where anyone can find them. The tie-in to your physical phone allows you to seamlessly continue using many of your personal cell phone’s features.

With the new TL, Acura has come out with a sedan that looks fast when sitting still, and can quickly turn the world into a comfortable, passing blur. Whether or not Acura can muscle into a market with established luxury performance names like Mercedes, Lexus or Cadillac remains to be seen. But the TL will certainly give the big boys a run for their money.

.

2009 Acura TL

Super Handling – All Wheel Drive

MSRP: $43,995

EPA Mileage: 17 MPG City 25 MPG Highway

Performance / Safety:

0 – 60 Miles Per Hour 6.5 Seconds

¼ Mile 14.8 Seconds at 96.9 MPH

Top Speed 130 Miles Per Hour

3.7-Liter V-6 aluminum alloy engine producing 305 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque; high-flow, sport-tuned, dual exhaust system with 4 exhaust tips; 4-wheel disc brakes; 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels; anti-lock brakes; 5-speed automatic transmission with sport paddle shift; double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension; vehicle stability and traction controls; dual-stage, dual threshold front airbags; dual chamber, front-seat side airbags; side curtain airbags; projector HID low beams and halogen high beams.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/ FM /XM satellite radio; 10-speaker Dolby audio system; 6-disc, in-dash CD changer; USB port, iPod and iPhone connection; auxiliary jack for MP3-players; DVD player; 2,500-song hard drive; Bluetooth cell phone communication; navigation system with 8-inch, touch or voice activated screen, traffic rerouting, and Doppler weather warnings; tilt & telescope, leather wrapped, 3-spoke steering wheel with fingertip audio, phone and cruise controls; power moon roof; powered leather seats; heated front seats.

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09′ GMC Sierra Hybrid

October 7, 2009

Roaming the City

In a Working Man’s Truck

By Roger Witherspoon

It was one of those lucky city moments when there was a Starbucks in sight and a fairly large parking spot right in front. For a City boy, the day doesn’t start much better than that.

So I began backing into the spot, and realized the Audi behind me was completely lost behind the protruding rear of the Sierra Crew Cab’s large truck bed. Where is a big, tall, wide, gas guzzling SUV when you’re looking for one?

So, mindful of the little sedan behind me, I did the only thing I could: put the hybrid into park, jumped out and checked. I had a good five feet to go, so I climbed back into the cab and began backing up slowly – repeating the in and out ritual of parallel parking until I was reasonably parked and the Audi was reasonably safe.

Pickup trucks were never really intended for the nation’s older, Frost Belt cities. It wasn’t until I moved to Texas, which hosts 20% of the nation’s pickups that I realized that these work horses can double as fairly comfortable, well appointed, family cars. And in today’s climate, they can be equipped with gadgets to make them as environmentally friendly as you can reasonably expect from a working truck.

That’s a category that includes the newest working man’s truck from General Motors: the GMC Sierra Hybrid which can haul your family belongings, three tons of concrete, or your newest baby with equal comfort and aplomb. If you’d like the exact same truck in a slightly different style, you’ll find it in the Chevrolet Silverado – though the Chevy brand doesn’t carry the same extra tough cachet as the GMC logo.

Though GM has spent much of the last two decades fighting against environmental improvements, the Detroit automotive giant has always had engineers and designers capable of developing and delivering powerful, yet fuel efficient vehicles – if given the chance. The Sierra Hybrid – and its sister Silverado – combine three systems in a technological blend which makes these competitive trucks for those who want them.

Under the Sierra’s hood is a dual-mode power system consisting of a 6.0-liter V-8 engine producing 332 horsepower – which is adequate but not overpowering – and a 300-volt electrical engine whose torque goes directly to the axels. The combination is an instantly responsive power train which can haul three tons of material and carry another ton in its 53-cubic foot covered cargo bed.

An advantage of the hybrid system is the regenerative braking provided by the electric motor. The motor takes the heat from the brakes and converts it into electricity, which is stored in its battery pack. The result is that five or six years down the road, the owner of a hybrid does not need to spend hundreds of dollars on new brakes and rotors, an inevitable expense with regular, gas powered vehicles.

The V-8 engine on the Sierra Hybrid contains GM’s Active Fuel Management, which drops the gasoline engine down to only four cylinders when cruising, thus cutting down on the rate of the regular gasoline it’s burning. According to EPA estimates, the Sierra Hybrid burns 20 miles per gallon in city or highway motoring. That is an improvement over the standard, 14 MPG Sierra. The electric motor is capable of driving the truck at speeds under 30 miles per hour, or combining with the gasoline engine for acceleration. The motor does not handle the power steering well when backing up at very low speeds, however, and maneuvering in and out of parking spots with just the electric motor means fighting the steering wheel.

As with most vehicles these days, many of the Sierra’s features come a la carte. In this test model, the Sierra Hybrid did not have a navigation system with its color touch screen, or a backup camera. The latter is essential in city driving, where one prefers not to back into small, parked cars. And while many motorists feel a navigation system is an unnecessary luxury – particularly in this era of a portable Garmen – a key to the efficiency of any hybrid system is the interactive display which serves to train you into more energy efficient driving habits.

When you are looking at a screen showing gas usage ranging from 2 MPG to 100 MPG there is a natural inclination to try and keep the gauge in the upper range – especially when you are paying for the gas. You don’t feel any better knowing that the Sierra takes regular gas if you are burning it at a single digit MPG rate. In the absence of such a visual feedback system, it is difficult to know when you should change the way you are driving. That is particularly true in a hybrid because when you are driving purely on electrical power, there is no sound. The silence can be disturbing, and there is a tendency to gun the accelerator just to make sure the engine is on.

But the luxury package for this working man’s truck will add about $6,000 to the price tag, which begins to shove it into another category.

The designers of the Sierra Hybrid wanted something comfortable for very tall men. Short men, handicapped men and women, and women in skirts may find it awkward to step up nearly three feet to get into the driver’s seat since there is no access step. But once inside, it’s a spacious, comfortable cabin with amenities for working or just cruising. The four wheel drive model comes with XM satellite radio, an in-dash CD and MP3 player, and an 18-inch wide center arm rest which can easily double as a computer table or work stand. There is also GM’s OnStar communications systems, which can provide turn-by-turn navigating instructions or make phone calls through GM’s satellite network. OnStar will often work in mountainous or rural regions where there is little or no cell phone access.

There is more than enough leg and headroom for five NBA forwards to sit comfortably on the wide, suede-like, manually-operated seats. And for another $1,000 or so you can upgrade to heated leather. Underneath the rear seat is the 300-volt batter pack for the Sierra’s electric motor. It is easily accessible by raising the seat, but otherwise the power pack is not noticeable.

The Sierra Hybrid is the kind of vehicle that GM built its reputation on. It is powerful, efficient, comfortable, and attractive. If GM survives its current economic troubles, this is one of the vehicles it will bank its future on.

GMC Sierra 4WD Hybrid

Crew Cab

MSRP: $42,790

EPA Mileage: 20 MPG City 20 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity: 5,900 Pounds

Maximum Payload: 1,418 Pounds

Performance / Safety:

6.0-Liter cast aluminum V-8 engine producing 332 horsepower and 367 pound-feet of torque and active fuel management; 300-volt battery powered electric motor and 42-volt power rack & pinion steering system; two-mode continuous electric hybrid w/4 fixed gears; power-assisted 4-wheel disc brakes with regenerative braking; locking rear differential; stability and traction control; 5-spoke, 18-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels; dual stage front air bags; head, curtain side airbags; daytime running lights.

Interior/ Comfort:

AM/FM/ XM satellite radio; single CD player; OnStar communications with turn-by-turn navigation; Bluetooth cell phone communication; tilt and telescope, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio, cell phone, and cruise controls; soft Tonneau cargo bay cover.

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09′ Lincoln MKS

October 7, 2009

Living Large in a Lincoln

By Roger Witherspoon

They call it the Goat Trail, and on a good day it’s a bad ride.

You enter the one lane snake from the east side of the Bear Mountain Bridge, just south of West Point, where the road begins a steep winding drop more than 400 feet from the mountainside to the shore of the Hudson River. The single lane road is a series of curves and switchbacks flanked by the rising mountain on one side and a straight drop on the other.

It is a road which demands that drivers pay strict attention, a task complicated at night when motorists may or may not turn off their bright headlights in time to avoid blinding an oncoming car.

I drive that route frequently enough that I usually do it with one hand on the headlight switch. On this occasion, however, I noticed that the lights dimmed before I touched them, and resumed the full force of the high density headlamps, whose beams shifted in the direction of each sharp turn. It seems the radar system in this luxury sedan had the ability to detect headlights or tail lights up to 500 feet in front of the car, and adjust the strength of the headlights accordingly. Its warning radar can detect objects as much as 1,500 feet in front of the car, a bonus in a region where there are more than 1,000 collisions between autos and deer.

It was a pleasant surprise in the technological luxury road trip that is the new Lincoln MKS, which is intended to be the flagship of the Lincoln line. It is aimed at those seeking a mid-priced, full sized, luxury performance car; a market that has been grabbed in recent years by the Acura RL, Infiniti M, and Lexus GS. While it is never going to drag race with those three, the MKS may well give them a run for the luxury money.

The technology behind the adaptive headlights is part of the allure of the MKS. Ford, financially the healthiest of the three American auto makers, is revving up its Lincoln line and attempting to get away from its image as a producer of big boats used primarily by limo drivers to haul the high lifers and police departments to haul the low. But Ford hopes those fleet cars will no longer be the main image people have when they think of its Lincoln division. And the company is pinning its hopes on the MKS to anchor the top of the Lincoln line.

The MKS is new, rather than a retooled version of its Town Car or a longer version of the mid-sized MKZ. The experience starts up front, with the distinct, slashing, chrome grill and long sloping front. The sides are wide, a distinct departure from the trim look of most of its competitors. This is a deliberate throwback to the styling of the large Lincoln boats of the 50s and 60s – but it does not look ungainly. The windows seem small inset in such a sea of heavy metal, but the overall impression is pleasantly solid, rather than bloated.

Under the hood, the MKS has a 3.7-liter V-6 engine cranking out 275 horsepower. That’s low for a car weighing nearly three tons and, as a result, the acceleration is just average and the top speed is just 130 miles per hour. It is not a car to take road running against Lexus, Infiniti, or Acura. Next year, however, Lincoln is coming out with a larger engine pushing 100 more horses and twin turbo chargers which should let the big car run with the big dogs on the road. How that powerhouse upgrade will impact the current $47,000 price tag remains to be determined.

But this is a luxury car intended for those who are demanding but not in a hurry. Inside, where you spend your time, the technology and thoughtful touches stand out. The windows are small and the seats are set low in the car. While that limits some of the range of view, the MKS has side radar – in addition to backup cameras – to assist you in backing up and avoiding obstacles you cannot see. The interior is not dark or claustrophobic, however, since there are two skylights: one for the front which can tilt or slide completely open, and one for the rear. There are sun screens for each.

The seats are deep, soft, wide, leather and powered: both the front and rear seats may be heated or air cooled, depending on your choice and the outside weather. The leather arm rests in the center and on the doors – which curve slightly outwards – ensures that you won’t have sore elbows at the end of a long trip.

Then, there is the next generation of Ford’s integrated SYNC system, the voice or manually operated, everything-control which can run the navigation system, cell phone, regular or satellite radio, CD player or iPod, MP3 player or flash drive inserted into the convenient USB port. The media system’s recorder lets you build your own internal playlist in the built-in juke box capable of storing 150 hours of music. The sound emanates from a 600-watt THX II system consisting of 16 speakers and a 10-inch sub woofer. The eight-inch color screen used for the navigation system can also show DVDs when the car is not moving.

Lincoln’s are an acquired taste. The styling is for those who seek sedate and classy, rather than sleek and racy. The interior, however, is for all who demand performance in their technology and comforts but with understatement rather than flair. As the leader of the new Lincoln lineup, the MKS is worth a second ride.

2009 Lincoln MKS AWD

MSRP: $47,260

EPA Mileage: 16 MPG City 23 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity: 1,000 Pounds

Performance / Safety:

3.7-Liter Duratec V6 aluminum engine producing 275 horsepower and 276 pound-feet of torque; all wheel drive; 6-speed automatic transmission with electronic manual mode; 19-inch cast aluminum wheels; power rack & pinion steering; 4-wheel disc brakes; traction and electronic stability control; adaptive high density headlamps; fog lamps; reverse sensing system and backup camera; adaptive cruise control; forward sensing system; dual stage front air bags; driver & passenger side airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; 600-watt THX II sound system with 12 speakers and 10-inch sub woofer; DVD player; CD, MP3 & iPod player; USB port; SYNC voice-activated control system; touch-screen or voice navigation system; tilt & telescoping , leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip cruise and entertainment controls; Bluetooth; front & rear sunroofs; heated or cooled front and rear leather seats; powered front seats.

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09′ VW Jetta TDI

October 7, 2009

The Little Jet That Could

By Roger Witherspoon

When the winter storm had passed, there was a thick blanket of the kind of soft, featherweight, slippery snow that frustrates kids trying to pack snowballs and delights those looking for powdery surfaces to ski on. It was beautiful in the early evening light, but the snow was not particularly friendly to motorists.

Which made it a perfect place to play in a diesel-powered VW Jetta TDI on the wide street adjacent to the National Guard Armory in Teaneck, NJ. I started slowly, driving the Jetta in a wide, lazy, five mile an hour circle; the sedan’s 16-inch wheels and all weather tires leaving crisp tracks in the clean surface. Then I reversed course and, at 10 miles an hour, completed a figure eight. That seemed too easy, so I sped up and traced another lazy eight in the powder, then sped up again.

In short order I was drawing figure eights at 35 miles an hour, and the tire tracks in the fresh snow in front of a row of parked tanks was as crisp as it had been when I started. The Jetta did not have snow tires, but the sedan’s electronic stability program ensured that the compact VW was as secure in snow and ice as any Jeep on the road. Like a little jet that could, this compact goes road running regardless of the weather and other road hazards.

While the Jetta TDI provides surprising stability for a $24,000 sedan, its real strength lies in its performance when the sun is high and the roads are dry.

The sun was high, the highway was clear, the temperature was in the low teens and the wind whipping through the Upper Hudson River Valley in New York’s Adirondack Mountains pushed the mercury below zero. It was warm as toast inside the sleek Jetta TDI sedan whose low, sleek, curved profile easily sliced through the wintery blasts gusting through the hills and dales flanking the highway. For a small car with a straight line, four cylinder engine that produced just 140 horsepower, being able to cruise without a lot of vibration at 70 miles per hour is about all a motorist can usually ask for.

But this was a turbocharged, diesel powered vehicle, whose design sent double the usual power – in this case, 230 pound-feet of torque – directly to the axels of this front wheel drive sedan. This meant it acted more like a sedan with a souped up V-6. So I floored the pedal, and the compact jumped forward, quickly approaching its 130 mile per hour top speed before I slowed back down to the legal driving range.

For a small car in this price range, the Jetta packs a lot – and it is not very thirsty. The EPA estimate is the Jetta diesel gets 29 miles per gallon in city driving and 40 MPG on the highway. The test car averaged 37.5 MPG in mixed driving.

The Jetta’s interior is pleasant, but nothing special to look at. The décor is padded plastic and simulated chrome – but it looks plain, rather than cheap. The seats are wide, leather, comfortable and the front pair can be heated. On the other hand, the seats are manually operated, not easily adjusted, and it seems anachronistic in this day and age. On the plus side, there is enough room in the rear for the Jetta to comfortably carry four average sized adults on a cross country trek. And there is a 115-volt power outlet so a passenger can plug in a computer or electronic game during the trip.

The dash does not have a color LCD screen, and the information from its entertainment system is only visible on a narrow, green, outdated screen. In its favor, however, the entertainment system has Sirius satellite radio, a six-disc, in-dash CD player and an MP3 connection. It does not have a Bluetooth or iPod connection, however, which may be a drawback when marketing the car to young buyers. For about $2,000 more, VW will provide a navigation system with a color touch screen, and an entertainment system complete with a 30 GB hard drive to record your own music and a DVD player.

That added technology pushes the Jetta’s price into a more competitive car category. But still, if you are going to jet around the countryside, it is not a bad way to travel.

2009 Jetta TDI

MSRP: $24,190

EPA Mileage: 29 MPG City 40 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage: 37.5 MPG Mixed

Top Speed: 130 MPH

Performance/ Safety:

2.0-Liter I-4, turbocharged direct injection engine producing 140 horsepower and 230 pound-feet of torque; front wheel drive; power steering; independent strut front suspension; multilink independent rear suspension; anti-lock brakes; electronic stability program; 6-speed automatic transmission; 16-inch alloy wheels; driver and front passenger side airbags; side curtain head airbags in front and rear.

Comfort/ Interior:

AM/FM/ Sirius satellite radio; 6-disc, in-dash CD player and MP3 connection; tilt and telescope steering wheel with fingertip cruise command and entertainment controls; leather seats; heated front seats; folding rear seats; 115-volt power outlet; compass and outside temperature display.

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